Chris Harman


The workers’ weekly

(October 1993)

From Socialist Review, No. 168, October 1993.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

It is 25 years since Socialist Worker was first launched as a weekly paper aimed at organising working class militants and socialists. Hazel Croft and Gareth Jenkins talked to the paper’s editor, Chris Harman, about the ups and downs of struggle in those years, and how the paper can be used to organise

Can you explain the founding of the weekly paper and the audience it was aimed at?

A transformation in political life took place right across the world in 1968. The images of the 1960s on television have been of swinging London, mini-skirts, alternative culture, David Frost and the Beatles. In reality 1968 represented something quite different.

There was the coming together of the Tet offensive – the first big defeat for the Americans in Vietnam; the Prague Spring – the revival of mass discontent in the Stalinist system in Eastern Europe; and May in France – the biggest general strike in history. This created a sudden feeling of hope among very large numbers of mainly young people, particularly students but also young workers, that society could be changed. It meant that small groups of people with revolutionary socialist ideas, opposed to both the Western and the Stalinist systems, for the first time had a much wider audience.

The International Socialists, as the SWP was then called, had three or four hundred members at the beginning of 1968. I remember going on demonstrations when 2,000 people would march behind our banner saying ‘Victory to the NLF in Vietnam’, singing the Internationale – something we’d never experienced before.

There were three sorts of responses to that. One was the response which is celebrated today – to get into alternative cultures, drugs, dropping out. But this was marginal in 1968. Most people on demonstrations still wore suits and ties. If you look at pictures of the French May, many of the students and workers are dressed very conventionally.

The second response was to see students as the new revolutionary class. This was encapsulated to some extent in Britain in the newspaper called Black Dwarf, edited by Tariq Ali.

We had a different perspective, which was that the movement of students was a forerunner of a wave of workers’ revolt. We already had a small circulation monthly paper. We decided to use and extend it to try to take the anger and the feeling of hope from the student anti-Vietnam War movement and direct it towards building socialist organisation among workers. That’s why we launched the weekly paper.

The first issue was in September 1968. It was four pages, crammed with reports of workers’ struggles, of rent strikes – but also with features about Eastern Europe, Vietnam, France and racism. Our aim was to try to create an audience among workers, particularly young workers, who could carry the feeling of 68 into the workplaces.

How successful was Socialist Worker in relating to this audience?

We were lucky because in 1969-70 there was a revival of working class struggle. A whole section of the workers’ movement who had not been in the struggle previously – the Leeds clothing workers’ struggle, for example, when 8,000 women marched through the streets from factory to factory calling people out – or the Pilkington strike. For the first time there were strikes of dustmen, teachers and in 1973 the first one day strike of civil servants. These were groups of workers which we’d expect to take strike action now, but back in the 1960s the dominant argument was that these groups weren’t interested in taking action.

Socialist Worker succeeded in building an audience among these people who were involved often for the first time in trade union activity, as well as among young car workers, young workers in the steel industry, groups of miners and so on. Through to 1974 there was a general rise in working class struggle. At each point the level of struggle rose the paper found a new audience.

By 1970 we had an audience of perhaps 10,000 or 15,000 people from much more working class backgrounds. By 1973 every week we were printing 30,000 copies and at the peak during the miners’ strike in early 1974 42,000 copies. Socialist Worker had become a working class paper with a working class audience of manual workers in the traditional industries – steel, engineering, cars – as well as the new radicalised white collar workers.

How did the role of the paper then change when the struggle subsided after the election of the Labour government in the mid-1970s?

Between 1969 and 1974 the paper built because it reflected the anger of different struggles and generalised it. This wasn’t automatic. We often had to carry bitter arguments in the pages of Socialist Worker. In 1972, for example, there was an argument that we shouldn’t support the dockers because they were fighting for their jobs at the expense of others. We had to argue the dockers were fighting for everyone’s jobs. In 1974, the TUC argued the miners were a special case, we had to argue if the miners won everyone else would win.

But in the context of rising struggle that generalisation was relatively easy. What changed with the election of a Labour government in 1974 is that suddenly all the arguments went in the opposite direction. The left wing leaders inside the TUC – Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon – and that whole layer of stewards influenced by them or by the Communist Party would suddenly be saying ‘it’s our government’ or British Leyland is nationalised so it’s ‘our industry’. Therefore, they argued, it’s in our interests to increase productivity and hold down the wage bill.

From arguing with the stream, we suddenly found we were arguing against it. Looking back, the main achievement of Socialist Worker between 1975 and the mid-1980s, was to hold together a continual readership. Our print order never fell much below the 30,000 it achieved in 1974 and the paper maintained socialists in what was a very difficult series of battles.

People look back at the 14 years of Tory government, they forget that in some ways the five years of Labour government before it were even harder.

Of course there were still struggles and still victories and Socialist Worker identified completely with those struggles. For example, the struggle around Grunwicks in 1977 when thousands of miners, dockers and other workers took action defending the dozen or so Asian women workers. It was a magnificent struggle although it went down to defeat. In Lewisham in 1977 Socialist Worker took the lead in organising the first demonstration which really smashed the National Front and laid the ground for the foundation of the Anti Nazi League.

But the overall picture was one in which the successes didn’t lead people to automatically generalise and draw socialist conclusions. There were 100,000 people on the Anti Nazi League carnivals, that didn’t mean that those 100,000 people drew a conclusion in favour of the overthrow of capitalism. For many it was enough to beat the Nazis.

How did Socialist Worker manage to shift in order to provide the arguments needed to resist the period of demoralisation?

The paper didn’t shift immediately. There was a period of disorientation and frustration which stretched from 1975 to 1982 in which we tried by one means or another to relate to things.

In the early 1980s we realised we had to put more emphasis on general socialist ideas in the paper – the Marxist tradition, the history of the movement, previous workers’ struggles, books that made people socialists. Although these articles were never more than a quarter of the content, they became its centre.

We had to go into considerable discussion on what went wrong in particular struggles, what were the weaknesses. In 1982 the rail union called a tube strike and no one went on strike. We had to provide a long analysis on the miscalculations, what the alternatives were, what the way forward was, how to rebuild union strength. So Socialist Worker had to be a heavier paper than in the preceding era in order to hold its audience.

But that didn’t mean it stopped being a campaigning paper. During the Falklands War in 1982, every front page was a poster in opposition to the war. Since it was only us and ten Labour MPs who were opposed to the Falklands War it was Socialist Worker which was the opposition. The paper couldn’t just be a shriek of anger, it had to explain. Even during the miners’ strike of 1984-85, we had to combine continual agitation on the strike – how to build the strike, how the strike can be successful, why you should support the miners – with analysis of why the TUC was not backing the miners and the problems of the strike. We had to be clear we thought there was a great danger of the strike being defeated from early on, so we were never just cheerleaders. The paper always answered the questions – what must the miners do to prevent defeat? How is victory possible? What mistakes have been made?

So how do you settle the balance between immediate arguments and more generalised politics?

Under capitalism there is always a small minority of people who are interested enough in struggling against the system to read substantial articles. But the reality of life for most blue and white collar workers is that they go to work early, and get back at six or later in the evening, you’re absolutely knackered, your brain is done in and it’s about as much as you can do to flop in front of Neighbours or EastEnders. A socialist paper that really wants to relate to people has to find ways of writing short articles which people can absorb easily.

The capitalist press – particularly the Sun, the Mirror, the Mail and so on – have it easy in that they are going along with existing prejudice. So when they say things like ‘there’s too many people in the country’ it’s taken for granted. Socialist Worker has to give ten facts to prove there’s not too many people in the country. Although our ambition always used to be to produce what we called a socialist Daily Mirror – a socialist paper which has short accessible articles – it’s very rare that we can do things in quite that form. Most of the time we’re putting difficult arguments.

The ups and downs of the struggle determine the extent to which you can reach out to a mass popular audience. During the 1974 miners’ strike we were not much against the stream. Everyone hated Edward Heath. In November 1990 when Thatcher fell we were not against the stream. We produced a front page saying ‘Gotcha’ with Thatcher’s head in a noose which was extremely popular.

In October last year when the government announced the pit closures, we had already printed Socialist Worker without special reference to the crisis, but because there was suddenly a huge feeling against the Tories we sold 70,000 copies of that paper and could still print 40,000 copies of a miners’ special which sold out that weekend. Huge numbers of people identified with the struggle and they wanted arguments to take the struggle forward. And if people want to fight, then they get the intellectual energy to read, argue and debate.

So the selling of the paper and the testing of ideas enables socialists to have a real feel of what can be done and what is possible.

A socialist paper can’t be produced by a group of people sitting in isolation from everyone else. It depends all the time on the feedback from people who sell the paper, people phoning in reports from their workplaces, people saying what they want to see in the paper. That’s the only way you can gauge whether you are doing the right thing.

The paper is the connection between socialists and that section of workers who want to fight back. That section can sometimes be very small, but the paper still has to connect with them. There are other situations when the number of workers who want to fight will be very large and then you are trying to connect them to a more general fight. Sometimes on television people selling Socialist Worker are portrayed as loonies or religious maniacs. But historically pushing their paper is very important to every serious socialist organisation because it’s the connection between people who already understand the struggle for socialism and people around them who agree on only some of their politics.

The socialist paper is the mechanism by which organised socialists both put ideas across and test those ideas against people outside the organisation. Therefore for us selling Socialist Worker on the streets on a Saturday is crucial. That’s why we don’t sell it like the Daily Mirror because we want to show people there is socialist opposition, a visible alternative.

Socialist Worker makes people feel they are in connection with other people. One of the best illustrations is the Taylor sisters who came out of prison with Winston Silcott T-shirts on, which was fantastic. How did they get in contact with Winston Silcott? Because Socialist Worker had printed a list of prisoners to write to at Christmas.

I’m convinced that in any big city in Britain today there are probably a couple of thousand people who agree with most of what the SWP argues. The problem for socialists is finding these people, showing each one of them that there are another thousand people with the same ideas and pulling them together into a critical mass who feel confident enough to stand together and fight. Selling a socialist paper on the streets is key to that.

What is also important is people selling Socialist Worker in their own particular workplace. Someone working in a factory or an office can’t just stand up on their own and announce their opposition to the management. They have to find other people who agree or half agree with them. Selling the paper is the way to locate those people. The techniques of learning to sell the paper can vary from the most elementary – leaving it in the lavatory and finding out who picks it up to read – to building up the confidence to sell openly and, in some situations, moving from being the only Socialist Worker reader in a factory or office to sales of 50 copies at certain points in the struggle.

What’s important is finding people who want to kick back against the system, but taking that anger beyond a particular issue to the wider struggle. This was vital in a period like the 1980s, when it was harder to generalise and the danger was that when particular struggles – against cruise missiles or the people’s march for jobs – didn’t break through, demoralisation set in. The need for socialist organisation to hold people together was essential.

If I look back at the successes of Socialist Worker between the introduction of the social contract in 1974-75 and the fold of the Thatcher government, the key thing was holding together continually a pool of people prepared to fight over issue after issue and draw new people into the struggle.

How can we use the paper to build lasting socialist organisation today?

Lenin described the revolutionary paper as the scaffolding in which to build the revolutionary party. The party is a group of people who understand the need for socialist revolution, who commit themselves to working for it and voluntarily accept a common discipline. They are therefore prepared to discuss, argue over strategy and tactics, how to respond to every move of the ruling class and the ups and downs of the morale of people around them.

At any point under capitalism because the prevailing ideas in society are the ideas of the ruling class, there are another layer of people who want to kick back and challenge the system in one way or another but who don’t yet feel that degree of commitment.

In Britain today there are hundreds of thousands of people who hate everything the Tories stand for, who are anti-racist and so on, but who nevertheless aren’t prepared yet to go to meetings or don’t want to risk their job by standing up against the supervisor. Socialist Worker has to relate to those people, draw them into a connection with the party so that to some degree they are being organised. Then on particular issues they will come out and fight.

In London, if the BNP murdered five people tomorrow, I’m sure half a million people would be out on the streets. The party wouldn’t mobilise all of those people, but it would mobilise 50,000 of them. The key to mobilising them is the four or five people in each locality who read Socialist Worker. On a smaller level, if there is a racist attack on a particular estate, the people who buy Socialist Worker are by and large the people who take the initiative in organising a response.

Most of the left in London have the attitude that the Isle of Dogs is a virtually all white area, that it’s fascist territory, especially since the by-election result. We don’t have that attitude because we have had a small group of people selling Socialist Worker there for a number of years, who know people on each individual estate, who know the different gradations of arguments – from people who half accept the racist argument through to whites who completely reject it. So we can begin to talk concretely about how you fight back in that locality.

In the same way, if you work in a school, you are just an individual. You may be involved in the union, you may know other people involved, but you won’t necessarily talk to every teacher in the school to find out their ideas. If you are selling Socialist Worker you are necessarily forcing yourself to have political arguments and you begin to learn the moods and politics of those in your workplace – from outright Tories through to socialists who agree with you. Then you have some idea how to organise the fightback.

How would the role of a socialist paper change in a mass upsurge or revolutionary struggle?

So far in my experience we’ve only ever had hints of it. There have been particular points, for example in 1972 when dockers were locked in Pentonville. During the national print strike, the print unions told us we couldn’t produce a new paper, so we had to reprint and reprint the old paper with ‘Free the five’ on the front page and we sold thousands and thousands of copies. And although we were much smaller than the SWP is now, we felt we played a role in winning solidarity action and getting groups out on strike.

During the events last October, Socialist Worker played a role in mobilising people for the demonstrations. The fact we were out in every city and town of any size in Britain, selling thousands of papers, meant people knew what was happening. We moved just from putting socialist arguments or making people feel they weren’t alone to being instrumental in moving people in a particular direction.

A revolutionary situation is characterised by very sharp ups and downs in the struggle which fluctuates in one direction and then another. In that situation you need a daily paper which is concerned with dealing with the immediate arguments arising from the situation, still containing general socialist politics, but also directing, almost by the hour, the ways in which people argue with other people and so on.

We are a long way from that. But what’s interesting if you look at last October you can see how when the mood of large numbers of people begins to change, people who’ve never looked at Socialist Worker before in their life, suddenly want one because they want to know what needs to be done and how to take the struggle forward.

In the heat of the struggle published by Bookmarks is a collection of writing from Socialist Worker’s first 25 years, price £12.50 (£9.95 in the Bookmarks club). Out in November

Last updated on 24 February 2017